Game based learning and serious game

Getting Started in Learning Game Design

If the sign-ups for our learning game design workshops and Primer on Play workshops are any indicator, learning and development professionals are clamoring for solid guidance on how to get started in learning game design or “game-based learning.” I love designing learning games, and I also love helping others design learning games. But because not everyone is going to be able to come to our workshops—or wait for one—I’ve decided to do a blog series to help folks get started.

Here is the 5- step process we cover in the workshops and webinars we offer:

Learning Games Flowchart

This post offers a brief summary of each step while my subsequent posts in this learning game design series will drill down into each one separately.

Pre-series disclaimer: I’m going to write about these steps individually, but they are actually quite iterative. Steps 1 and 2 work together—playing games without learning game design terminology makes it difficult to evaluate them well.  Steps 4 and 5 also go together because dumping ADDIE means you are play testing a lot as you design and develop. Step 3 (think about the learning) happens by itself as an initial analysis and design task, and then continues throughout Steps 4 and 5. As you iterate your design, you constantly have to reconsider how well you are achieving the learning goals. I will introduce the steps separately and describe them, but it’s up to you to integrate them and make them work together for you as you design your learning games.  That’s part of your mission!

A quick overview of the steps…

Step 1: Play games; evaluate what works and what doesn’t work in terms of “fun.”

If you don’t like playing games then you probably shouldn’t try to design one—unless you want to be miserable. Although most people do like games, there are people out there who simply do not like game playing. These people will NOT make good game designers. If you do like playing games, then you are at a good starting point for designing one. Game design is a bit like writing a book; you would never attempt to write a book if you first hadn’t spent time reading and evaluating several books.

So we’re clear that you need to play games, and you need to play a lot of different types of games. Even if you think of yourself as a card player, but not a videogame player, you still have to be willing to expand your horizons and explore different genres and game forms. You need to evaluate whether the games are fun, why they are or aren’t fun, and what elements might be usable in a learning game.

Step 2: Get familiar with game elements and how to use them.

I told you the steps were iterative. As you play games, know what you’re looking at and what you’re doing. Get a good book (or two or three) on game design and learn the terminology used in the industry. Elements to know include game dynamics, game mechanics (fancy word for rules), resources, levels, reward structures, etc.

Once you know these elements/words and what they mean, then you can think about how you might use them in a learning game. You’d be able to say, for example: “I’d like to create a game that uses a collection dynamic. I want to have at least three levels of play within it to accommodate different levels of player skill, and I think we need a reward structure that encourages repeat play over time, rewarding for time in game as well as performance on tasks.”

Step 3: Think about the learning first—and then the game.

This is a blog series about creating learning games. The part of ADDIE that you definitely don’t want to dump is the “A”— analyzing what your learners need to know or be able to do, and what they already know and can do. Your game will fit into those gaps. Your instructional objectives should drive the game’s design. The game design should NOT drive the learning design. The biggest mistake novice learning game designers make is to insert too many game mechanics into the game simply because they are fun. Example: it can be really fun to go to an in-game store and purchase supplies with currency you earn. However, if there is absolutely no learning point to this game activity, then you shouldn’t do it.

Step 4: Dump ADDIE. Go agile instead.

Creating a game is different than creating a workshop or a traditional “click NEXT to continue” eLearning course. You want to start with very rough/quick paper prototypes, play them, refine them, and then build another, more robust version. You keep refining as you go. In ADDIE, there is some room for “formative evaluation,” but it is limited. The assumption is that things will progress in an orderly fashion from analysis through final evaluation—with limited re-work between steps. With a game, you iterate fairly quickly and add layers of complexity and sophistication to the aesthetics as you go. You add and subtract game mechanics based on what you see as you have people play. You need to be okay doing this and not feel like you failed if you dump a design idea after you are three iterations into it.

Step 5: Play test. Play test. Did I say play test?

It is not enough for you and your buddies to like the game you design. Having a group of subject matter experts play your game, and pronounce it good, is not enough. You have to have actual target players play your game, and you need to do a solid debrief with them to inquire about what made the learning experience good or bad (and what made the play experience good or bad). When I blog on this topic, I’ll share a detailed process on how to play test well.

So fasten your seat belts, my mission is set to take off. YOUR mission—should you choose to accept it—is to read the blogs, execute the steps, and start designing learning games.